• October 25, 2014

Shedding the Superwoman Myth

6001-Wonderwoman

Matt Roth for The Chronicle Review

In 2005, I was teaching a first-year class at Harvard Business School. As usual, slightly under a third of my students were women. As always, I was the only female professor.

So one evening, my female students asked me and one of my female colleagues to join them for cocktails. They ordered a lovely spread of hors d'oeuvres and white wine. They presented each of us with an elegant lavender plant. And then, like women meeting for cocktails often do, they—well, we, actually—proceeded to complain. About how tough it was to be so constantly in the minority. About how the guys sucked up all the air around the school. About the folks in career services who told them never to wear anything but a good black pantsuit to an interview.

Over the course of the conversation, though, things began to turn. The women stopped talking about their present lives and started to focus on their futures, futures that had little to do with conferences or pantsuits and everything to do with babies, and families, and men. Most of the women were frankly intending to work "for a year or two" and then move into motherhood. These were some of the smartest and most determined young women in the country. They had Ivy League degrees, for the most part, and were in the midst of paying more than $100,000 for an M.B.A. And yet they were already deeply concerned about how they would juggle their lives, and surprisingly pessimistic about their chances of doing so.

Can women pursue their dreams without losing their sanity?

Like many women of my so-called postfeminist generation, I was raised to believe that women were finally poised to be equal with men. That after centuries of oppression, exploitation, and other bad things, women could now behave more or less the way men do. Women of my generation, growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, no longer felt we had to burn our bras in protest. Instead, with a curt nod to the bra burners who had gone before us, we could saunter directly to Victoria's Secret, buying the satin push-ups that would take us seamlessly from boardroom to bedroom and beyond.

Today, most major corporations—along with hospitals, law firms, universities, and banks—have entire units devoted to helping women (and minorities) succeed. There are diversity officers and work/family offices and gender-sensitivity training courses in all tiers of American society. The problem with these efforts is that they just don't work.

Or, more precisely, even the most well-intentioned programs to attract women or mentor women or retain women still don't deal with the basic issues that most women face. And that's because the challenges that confront women now are more subtle than those of the past, harder to recognize and thus to remove. They are challenges that stem from breast pumps and Manolo pumps, from men whose eyes linger on a woman's rear end and men who rush that same rear end too quickly out the door.

Ever since the publication of The Feminine Mystique, American women have been haunted by the problem of more. Spurred by Betty Friedan's plaintive query, "Is this all?"—inspired by feminism's struggle for expanded rights and access, seduced by Astronaut Barbie—we have stumbled into an era of towering expectations. Little girls want to be princesses. Big girls want to be superwomen. Old women want and fully expect to look young. We want more sex, more love, more jobs, more-perfect babies. The only thing we want less of, it seems, is wrinkles.

None of this, of course, can be blamed on feminism or feminists. Or, as one former radical gently reminded me recently, "We weren't fighting so that you could have Botox." Yet it was feminism that lit the spark of my generation's dreams—feminism that, ironically and unintentionally, raised the bar for women so high that mere mortals are condemned to fall below it. In its original incarnation, feminism had nothing to do with perfection. In fact, the central aim of many of its most powerful proponents was to liberate women from the unreasonable, impossible standards that had long been thrust upon them.

As feminist ideals trickled and then flowed into mainstream culture, though, they became far more fanciful, more exuberant, more trivial—something easier to sell to the millions of girls and women entranced by feminism's appeal. It is easy, in retrospect, to say that women growing up in that world should have seen through the fantasy to the underlying struggle, that they—we—should have realized the myths of Charlie (both the angels and the perfume) and fought from the outset for the real rights of women. But most of us didn't, not because we were foolish, necessarily, but because it's hard, coming of age, to embrace the struggles of your parents' generation. And so we embraced the myth instead, planning, like Atalanta, to run as fast as the wind and choose the lives we wanted.

Meanwhile, none of society's earlier expectations of women disappeared. The result is a force field of highly unrealistic expectations. A woman cannot work a 60-hour week in a high-stress job and be the same kind of parent she would have been without that job and all the stress. And she cannot save the world and look forever like a 17-year-old model.

No man can do that, either; no human can. Yet women are repeatedly berating themselves for failing at this kind of balancing act, and (quietly, invidiously) berating others when something inevitably slips. Think of the schadenfreude that erupts every time a high-profile woman hits a bump in either her career or her family life. Poor Condoleezza Rice, left without a boyfriend. Sloppy Hillary, whose hair is wrong again. Bad Marissa Mayer, who dared announce her impending pregnancy the same week she was named CEO of Yahoo. She could not pull it off (snicker, snicker). She paid for her success. She. Could. Not. Do. It. All.

Because they can't possibly be all things at once, women are retreating to the only place they can, the only realm they have any chance of actually controlling. Themselves.

Rather than focusing on the external goals that might once have united them, women are micromanaging the corners of their lives and, to a somewhat lesser extent, those of their children. Think about it: How many stories will you find in women's magazines about the pursuit of anything other than bodily or familial perfection?

To be sure, this turn to the personal is not restricted to women. It follows a trajectory that can be traced back to Woodstock, or, more precisely, to the jagged route that befell the members of the Me Generation. Along the way, the struggle for individual liberties was transformed into the mantle of individualism.

Just as Reagan and Thatcher led the fight to privatize markets, so, too, have women raised since the 1960s led the charge to privatize feminism. It's not that we're against feminism's ideals. Indeed, younger women are (not surprisingly) far more likely to be in the work force than were their mothers. Younger women are wholeheartedly devoted to birth control and to sexual freedom. They account for a majority of this country's college students and a growing chunk of its professional class. Sixty-six percent of mothers with children younger than 17 work outside the home.

Yet because these women are grappling with so many expectations—because they are struggling more than they care to admit with the sea of choices that now confronts them—most of them are devoting whatever energies they have to controlling whatever is closest to them. Their kids' homework, for example. Their firm's diversity program. Their weight.

My generation made a mistake. We took the struggles and the victories of feminism and interpreted them somehow as a pathway to personal perfection. We privatized feminism and focused only on our dreams and our own inevitable frustrations. Feminism was supposed to be about granting women power and equality, and then about harnessing that power for positive change. Younger generations of women have largely turned away from those external, social goals.

So what, then, do we do?

Two generations after Roe v. Wade, two generations after Title IX and sexual liberation, we are still circling around the same maddening questions. Can women really have it all? Is there another way, a real way, for women to balance their personal and professional lives? Can the lofty aspirations of the early feminists—for equality, opportunity, choice—be meshed with their daughters' stubborn yearning for more-traditional pleasures, like white weddings and monogamy? And can women pursue their dreams—all their dreams—without losing their sanity?

Yes, I would argue, they can. But not along completely gender-blind lines. We need a revised and somewhat reluctant feminism, one that desperately wishes we no longer needed a women's movement but acknowledges that we still do. A feminism based at least in part on difference.

Women need to realize that having it all means giving something up—choosing which piece of the perfect picture to relinquish, or rework, or delay.

Women, in other words, are not perfect. And they are not identical to men. They are physical and social beings, marked by flaws, programmed to reproduce, destined to age, and generally inclined to love. Any approach to women's issues must start from the reality of women's lives rather than from an idealized or ideological view of who they should be and what they should want. This does not in any way mean that women should lower their sights or accept anything less than total equality with men. But it does suggest that women's paths to success may be different and more complicated than men's, and that it is better to recognize these complications than to wish them away.

To begin with, we need to recognize that biology matters. Women are not in any way physically inferior to men, but they are distinctly and physically different. They have wombs and breasts and ovaries, physiological attributes that—for better or for worse—tend to affect the course of their lives. Feminism, for many good reasons, has tended to downplay these physical differences.

But a new look at feminism would suggest integrating biology more explicitly, and acknowledging the not-so-subtle ways in which women's physiology can shape their destinies. Two areas are paramount: sexuality and reproduction. Although, of course, both women and men are involved in both sex and reproduction, the effects fall differently on women.

Let's start with sex. Most women—not all, but most—approach sexual relations differently than men do. They are more interested in romantic entanglements than casual affairs, and more inclined to seek solace in relationships. Biologically, these preferences make sense, since it is women who benefit reproductively from relationships that extend beyond the moment of conception. Sociologically, though, they set the stage for an awful lot of workplace complications. If men and women are working together, some subset of them are liable to get involved in sexual encounters. For men—in general—the focus of those encounters is likely to be purely sexual. For women—in general, again—there is more of an emphasis on, or at least desire for, a relationship. Right from the outset, then, this imbalance puts women at a disadvantage.

To deal with those admittedly awkward possibilities, most organizations have enforced strict relationship policies over the past few decades. At some level, these restrictions make sense. But they don't help women. In fact, by rigidly drawing attention to the perils of sexual attraction, they can drive men away from the kind of relationships that would help women advance—the kind of relationships that senior men regularly have with junior men. I will always recall a conversation with a senior executive who openly joked that he would never take a woman on a consulting trip. "My wife would kill me!" he said. "And so," I muttered under my breath, "your wife is happy, but you'll never promote a deserving woman."

The way out of this mess is complicated but relatively clear. Organizations must be vigilant in promoting policies against sexual harassment. At the same time, though, they should be less puritanical about the possibilities of sex and sexual attraction. Because if all attraction constitutes harassment, and all relationships are marked by fear, then women will constantly be at a disadvantage.

The other physical difference that separates men from women is the act of reproduction. Having babies shapes women's lives in ways that have barely been touched by the otherwise significant social changes of the past 50 years. Before women have children, they can compete fairly evenly across most segments of life. They can play sports and be educated and gain access to nearly every job or profession. These are the victories that feminism has wrought.

After women have children, however, the lines of their lives begin to depart from men's. Even if they are lucky enough to have decent maternity leaves and good child care, women quickly find themselves pumping breast milk at the office and lumbering under the effects of too many sleep-deprived nights. They dodge meetings to make doctor's appointments and suffer an onslaught of guilt every time they leave a crying child to attend a conference. These aspects of mothering defy government regulation and corporate policy; these are the pulls that feminism forgot. And they are not going away.

To deal with such tensions successfully, therefore, women (and men) need to be far more explicit about recognizing the specific dilemmas of motherhood. Yes, companies can and should strive to create generous maternity leaves and family-friendly workplaces. Yes, governments should aim to provide more accessible and affordable child care.

But at the end of the day, women who juggle children and jobs will still face a serious set of tensions that simply don't confront either men (except in very rare cases) or women who remain childless. Women cannot avoid those tensions entirely, but they can make choices. They can choose, for instance, between high-paying jobs in far-off cities and lower-paying ones that might leave them closer to family and friends willing to help with the predictable crises of child rearing. They can choose careers with more or less flexibility, and husbands with more or less interest in shouldering child-care responsibilities. The point is that women need to make these choices and realize their impact rather than simply hope for the best.

Which brings me to the second category of things we can do to deal with the proverbial "women's problem." We can begin to redefine the meaning of choice.

For decades now, ever since the passage of Roe v. Wade, the word "choice" has been linked inextricably to the goal of giving women control over their bodies and reproductive rights. Those are vitally important concerns. But choice itself is a much bigger concept and needs to be understood by women in all its complexity. Today, women in the United States enjoy options that would have confounded their ancestors. They can get married, or not; have children, or not; pursue a profession, or not. They can choose the shape of their noses, the level of their education, the religion of their partner—even, if they want, the musical talents of their child's egg donor. The problem, though, is that this multitude of choices can feel overwhelming.

The problem is not hard to fix. In theory, at least, it demands little more than a change in attitude, a societal ratcheting down of the great expectations that now engulf women. Women need to realize that having it all means giving something up—choosing which piece of the perfect picture to relinquish, or rework, or delay.

If women are ever to solve the "women's problem," they also need to acknowledge that they can't, and shouldn't, do it alone. Men must help.

Both genders need to be more forthright in discussing the obstacles that women face. All too often, women are scared of raising the topic of gender with men, thinking it will brand them as radicals or troublemakers, while men are terrified of saying or doing anything that might classify them as politically incorrect. The result is that no one says anything productive at all.

Finally, it is crucial to remember whence we came. Feminism was never supposed to be a 12-step program toward personal perfection. It's time now to go back, to channel the passion of our political foremothers and put it again to good use. We need to focus less of our energies on our own kids' SAT scores and more on fighting for better public schools; less time on competitive cupcake-baking and more on supporting those few brave women willing to run for office. We need fewer individual good works and more collective efforts.

Feminism already taught us how to organize, how to agitate, how to petition for things like equal pay and better incentives for child care. We—the women born after feminism's rise, the women who may have discarded or disdained it—ought to get back on that wheel and figure out how to make it work. Moreover, and with the benefits of 50 years behind us, we can also move to what might be considered a softer and gentler form of feminism, one less invested in proving women's equality (since that battle has more or less been won) and less upset with men.

Which brings me to my last point. The feminism that I recall was supposed to be joyous. It was about expanding women's choices, not constraining them. About making women's lives richer and more fulfilling. About freeing their sexuality and the range of their loves.

There was pain and sweat along the way, but the end point was idyllic, liberating women—liberating them—from the pains of the past and the present. Somewhere, though, the joy fell out of that equation, along with the satisfaction that true choice should bring. If women want to work in high-powered jobs, they should. If they want to work part time, or from home, or not at all if they can afford it, that's perfectly all right, too. If they don't want to be neurosurgeons or look like Barbie or hook up every weekend because it doesn't give them pleasure, they should consciously and explicitly hold back, choosing not to indulge other people's preferences. If they like to bake elaborate organic cupcakes, they should. And if they don't, they should send Ring Dings to the bake sale and try not to feel guilty.

We need to struggle. We need to organize. And we need to dance with joy.

Debora L. Spar is president of Barnard College. This essay is adapted from her new book, Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection (Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

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